CLARKSVILLE – To make hand sanitizer you need, first of all, alcohol. Then you’ll want something to make the alcohol thicken into a gel — like, say carbomer. Add glycerin to cut the harshness. At Bee Naturals in Clarksville they then add lavender and sweet orange essential oils for their aromatherapeutic effects.
As the country scrambled to respond to the COVID-19 epidemic last week, Bee Naturals, which produces its own hand sanitizer on a relatively small scale at its Clarksville location, was suddenly bombarded with orders.
At the same time, Bee Naturals was competing with much bigger companies for a hold on the stretched-thin supply chain for hand sanitizer components.
“I would solve one problem, and then another would pop up. The containers all come from China. Keeping a container stock was challenging. Then carbomer went out of stock. Then alcohol,” Bee Naturals owner Barbara Chappuis said.
That last situation posed a special challenge. Without other components, the hand sanitizer won’t be the smooth, gel-like substance customers have come to expect. Without alcohol, it won’t have real sanitizing qualities at all.
A solution — and a chance to contribute to people on the front line of the COVID-19 response — came from an unexpected quarter. As she came out to vote in this month’s election — pondering, all the while, her alcohol dilemma — she ran into two of her neighbors, Simon and Monica Barker, who run a landscaping business.
“[I said] ‘I need alcohol. And they were, like, ‘oh, let’s go have a beer.’ And I said ‘not that kind of alcohol!,” Chappuis remembered.
The Barkers recommended their nephew, Nick Colombo, a co-founder of Switchgrass Spirits, a St. Louis-based micro-distillery.
Initially Chappuis was skeptical — to make hand sanitizer she would need very high-proof alcohol, stronger than the sort produced for human consumption. But it turned out the distillery’s process produced what would normally be waste alcohol that was ideal for Chappuis’s purposes. Chappuis came away from her visit to the distillery with two 15-gallon tanks of alcohol, and a collaboration was born: Switchgrass would keep Bee Naturals in stock, and Bee Naturals would produce hand sanitizer that could be handed out for free to first responders and other at-risk organizations that were running dangerously low.
““These people are on the front lines. They have to have it. Stay-at-home people like us, we only need a little bit if we go out,” Chappuis said. “Nurses, doctors, police, firemen — they really have to have it.”
In the first stage of the collaboration, 1,000 bottles were handed out. Between donations and her paying clients, Chappuis estimated that she’s made around 100 gallons of hand sanitizer in the last two weeks — not much for a large producer, but a lot for a Bee Naturals.
“Who would think that a company that makes person care, skin care, bath and body products would have anything in common in terms of even being able to collaborate with a micro-distillery,” Chappuis said. “It’s just been a really rewarding thing to do.”
The situation changed late last week when the federal Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency rule allowing distilleries like Switchgrass to begin producing hand sanitizer on their own — a change that should allow Switchgrass and other local distilleries to begin producing on a much larger scale.
But as of early this week, Switchgrass and Bee Naturals were still finding opportunities to collaborate for the good of the community, with Chappuis providing small deliveries to tide groups over until Switchgrass can get them a bigger batch. On a busy Monday afternoon, Chappuis delivered sanitizer to St. Louis Police Department’s southernmost First District and the Berkley Police Department in north St. Louis County.
The product produced by the distilleries will be a liquid instead of a gel, since they don’t have access to a gelling agent, though it should be just as effective as a spray. Bee Naturals has itself had to drop carbomer as its gelling agent in favor of zantham gum, resulting in a cloudier, less crystal-clear product.
“Right now, aesthetics is not the priority. Just having good hand sanitation is the important thing,” Chappuis said.
In her interview with the Press-Journal Monday, Chappuis, a nurse by profession, emphasized that, despite her efforts to keep supplies of hand sanitizer flowing, it was by no means the be-all and end-all of anti-COVID-19 hygiene: soap and water remains the prime tool for keeping hands clean when it’s available, and avoiding unnecessary trips will reduce contact with unclean surfaces in the first place.
Chappuis said she hoped the partnership could demonstrate the tools small businesses could bring to challenges like COVID-19.
“I think the ability to be nimble, to adapt, to solve problems quickly — Nick’s a small company, I’m a small company, we’re able to get in there and deliver,” Chappuis said. “The big supply chains just can’t operate quite that quickly.”
In the mean time, Chappuis is running her own small business in suddenly difficult economic times.
Chappuis said her Bee Naturals would probably not be the most exposed to the economic impact: though she’s closed their Maplewood retail location, Bee Naturals does most of its business online, and will hopefully weather a drop-off in foot traffic. She is selling a lot of hand sanitizer but says that, with the cost of shipping, she is just about breaking even.
The crisis still comes at a frustrating point in the history of her business, which employs four full-time and one part-time employee at locations in Clarksville and Maplewood. After eight challenging years, Chappuis said, 2020 had been shaping up to be Bee Natural’s best year yet. Now the future looks more uncertain. But for the time being, Bee Naturals has found a way to contribute.
“In crises, its very common to feel helpless. What can I do that would really, truly be helpful? This became readily apparent to us. It was a no-brainer,” Chappuis said.